Report: Air Traffic Control Errors and Runway Incidents Soar

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A screen at the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Va., displaying flights in North American airspace.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reveals that flying isn’t getting any safer.

According to the report, air traffic controllers working at radar facilities that handle departures and approaches within 30 miles of an airport were responsible, over the past three years, for doubling the incidents in which planes flew too close together.

Also, at airports with control towers, the number of runway incursions — when there is an unauthorized plane, vehicle, person or object in the area where planes arrive and depart — increased to 18 incidents per million in the 2010 federal budget year, up from 11 incidents per million in 2004. Most large and medium-sized airports have control towers.

Just like in the past, when reports have revealed dramatic increases in the number of air-traffic incidents, the Federal Aviation Administration attributed the jumps to more reporting by air traffic controllers. The GAO report acknowledged that changes in reporting could be partly responsible for the increases but also said that trends indicate other factors are at play.

Despite what the numbers indicate, there have been no major air accidents in the U.S. in 2011. The last fatal crash occurred in 2009 and was attributed to pilot error rather than controller error. The FAA is also at work trying to implement a new radar system called NextGen that is supposed to be rolled out over the next decade, but recent budget troubles and software problems have stalled the process.

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Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero or on Tumblr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.